Throughout her life -- through high school, college, seminary and graduate school -- Monica A. Coleman always excelled. But beneath her success was a deep sadness she tried to keep hidden, a grief that seemed to run through her entire family.
“I was building a résumé, and getting good grades, and getting scholarships, and going to school, and doing all these other things that a lot of people can’t do while living with depression, or in between depression,” Coleman said. “I just thought this was ‘normal’ Monica -- the Monica people would like, the Monica people would accept. And I tried to hide the sad Monica.”
In her new book, “Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith,” Coleman, a professor at Claremont School of Theology, talks about her struggles with mental illness and her path to recovery.
She calls the book “a memoir of mental illness, a spiritual autobiography and a coming-of-age story.”
The book is one of a very few memoirs about depression by African-American authors. For many African-Americans, particularly of earlier generations, mental illness is simply not discussed, virtually impossible to separate from the hard aspects of daily living.
“No one sits around doing clinical diagnoses of people who are just trying to survive -- where you’re trying to put food on your table, where you’re dealing with these huge, overt systems of racism and war and trauma,” she said.
Coleman teaches theology and African-American religions at Claremont, where she is the school’s first African-American woman to be appointed full professor. She has an A.B. from Harvard-Radcliffe, an M.Div. from Vanderbilt University, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Claremont. She is an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Coleman spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about “Bipolar Faith.” The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Give us a brief overview of the book.
I think of it as a memoir of mental illness, a spiritual autobiography and a coming-of-age story.
It is also about what it means to live with a mental health challenge, and to do so while growing and moving and standing in faith -- losing it again, and finding it again.
Q: I understand that very few memoirs have been written about depression among African-Americans. Why?
There are two. One is by an African-American man, John Head, a journalist. And another is by Meri Danquah, a Ghanaian immigrant, so it’s actually not the same kind of cultural story.
Why is that? I don’t know why, actually. There are tons of memoirs on mental illness, compared with, say, memoirs on breast cancer. Like “Prozac Nation,” “Unquiet Mind,” “Darkness Visible,” “Noonday Demon.”
Q: Has depression been a taboo subject in the African-American community, and specifically in the African-American faith community?
I think that’s really true. Even the books I mentioned don’t talk about religion at all.
People don’t have a language for it, so they don’t talk about it, and don’t want other people to know about it.
I talk about it in the book as my big secret, the thing that I didn’t want anyone to know about me.
It’s not that we don’t live it; we don’t tell it loudly. A lot of us are still just trying to figure out how to live with it. Now we’re seeing more people, probably millennials, who are blogging about it.
Q: Speak some to the reality of depression in the black experience in the United States. In the book, you write, “What’s the difference between depression, war, being black in the Jim Crow South, and plain old hard living?” How does one even begin to parse that out?
You can’t, right?
No one sits around doing clinical diagnoses of people who are just trying to survive -- where you’re trying to put food on your table, where you’re dealing with these huge, overt systems of racism and war and trauma.
You’re just trying to be OK. This is what generations of people experienced, so no one is sitting down saying, “Can you go over the depression checklist?”
And you can’t say, “Well, is it brain chemistry?”
Who would be OK after -- or in the midst of -- those experiences? But no one called it depression, because everyone they knew was living like this, too. This was just life.
Q: The book has a stunning opening. Can you tell us about the event you describe in the introduction and how it shaped your family?
My mother’s mother -- my grandmother -- would describe the death of her parents, and how she and her siblings became orphans.
She would say, “My mother died when the baby girl was just 3 years old. She had an illness like pneumonia, and six months later, my father died of grief.”
So I assumed you could die of grief. You could just get so sad that your heart would shrivel up and die, kind of like what happens to the Grinch in those cartoons.
I thought as a kid that he must have really missed his wife, and he was sad, and he died.
Then I found out years later, well into my 20s, that in fact he had killed himself. He not only hung himself, but he asked his son, one of my great-uncles, who was 6 at the time, to pull out the chair from underneath him.
And then, as I write in the book, they even kept that rope in the shed for about 30 years. They played in the shed as kids, and stored things in there, and went in there, and I realized that this had shaped my family, my grandparents and my parents, living with more than grief. This is suicide!
Not knowing what to do with that, they left the rope there. It probably didn’t even occur to them to take it down.
It was something that they all dealt with in different ways. Some stayed. Many left, even if to go just one county over, or all the way North in the normal African-American migration patterns.
But they had this sense that you could just be very sad, a sense that grief could kill you.
And they taught us this. Even though they didn’t tell the whole story. It wasn’t a secret; they just didn’t tell it.
Because once they told it, it wasn’t like, “I’m telling you a secret.” They just said, “This is what happened.” The ones down South told us. The ones in the North didn’t tell the story.
That’s interesting, too, I think.
So I always grew up knowing that sadness could kill you, seeing my family being sad, but there wasn’t a reason for it -- “Because his wife died” or “Because my husband died” -- it was, “This is just a sadness that doesn’t go away.”
Q: That scene is one of several very open and vulnerable descriptions about deeply painful and traumatic events. What was it like for you to write that way?
It was mainly hard. I was an avid journaler. I wrote in my journal as a teenager, and I journaled probably from age 9 all the way up.
I would go back and look in the journals, and remember what I felt then. It was sad.
On another level, I felt deep gratitude that I lived through it, that I turned out OK.
Otherwise, I really wanted to tell what it was like, because it’s easy to think about the fact of suicide, or the facts or the data or the numbers about sexual violence, and not know that this is what it feels like.
I wanted to be able to convey that so people could try to understand, so I could share what it feels like from the inside.
Q: And you intersperse those events with your spiritual journey. They lead at times to a rejection of God and then a return to God. Recalling your grandmother’s death, for example, you write, “Once Grandma was gone, I was done with God.”
In hindsight, I think the rejection was the rejection of the God I knew, the God I had been taught, the only God that I had around to accept or reject.
I associated God strongly with Grandma. And I thought that my grandmother was the one [person] God gave me who understood me. I felt like she understood my parents and what my home life was like. I could go to her house and escape that.
So God took away this good thing in my life. I believed, as my family believed and as many people believe, that everything comes from God, the good stuff and the bad stuff.
And I didn’t want a God who’s going to take away my good stuff. That’s not OK.
Of course, the second time I lose faith in a significant way in this book, I’m a minister, when this violence comes into my life, and I don’t want to talk to God.
I’m mad at God. God can deliver people from the Red Sea but can’t deliver me. I don’t know how to preach the God I’ve been preaching, how to teach the God I’ve been teaching, so I fake it, because I have to.
I wasn’t even trying to find God. I was just trying to survive. And I think in many ways God found me. Of course, God never left me, but I found God in a new way.
I found God in a very embodied way, through dance, and through thinking of my ancestors in a new way. That was empowering and enlightening for me.
That was how I got to know God again, and again, and it still happens, of course. This is part of the spiritual life. When we’re really honest, we have these experiences, whatever they may be, and we see and experience [God] in new ways.
Q: For years, you struggled at some level with a deep sadness, but you were at the same time excelling. And then finally, you had a name for it. You had a diagnosis. What did that mean to you?
I was in a bookstore, taking a break from writing my dissertation, reading other books, not just religious books.
And I picked up a book in the psychology section, and I’m flipping through it, and I came to a page that describes bipolar II disorder.
I thought, “That’s me!” -- very productive, sometimes rapid speech, thoughts move very quickly, but still these hard depressions.
It sounded right. It sounded like me.
And I go on to read how it’s often misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed, and I called my psychiatrist and said, “I think this is me.”
And she says, “Well, I haven’t seen you long enough to diagnose you in a formal way, but I’ve always treated you like this is what your condition is.”
For me, it was like, “It’s not just me!” I’d been looking and looking and looking for my experience somewhere, and I didn’t find it in memoirs about bipolar I or depression.
Q: But you had earlier been diagnosed with major depression.
I had been diagnosed many times. I just ignored it.
I don’t know what the therapist I saw in high school diagnosed me with -- probably depression, because I was depressed and suicidal. I saw somebody when I was in college, but I also assumed that these were normal reactions to hard situations.
That’s how I had read it until I got this diagnosis of major depression after a significant suicidal bout, and she said it was major recurrent depression.
But she didn’t know me. She didn’t know that in those other years I was building a résumé, and getting good grades, and getting scholarships, and going to school, and doing all these other things that a lot of people can’t do while living with depression, or in between depression.
I just thought this was “normal” Monica -- the Monica people would like, the Monica people would accept. And I tried to hide the sad Monica.
So having a name, a diagnosis, meant, “There are other people like me.” That was really liberating.
Q: Did that help you rethink your family’s story? In the book, you write that you wanted to run back in time and tell your ancestors that it wasn’t their fault.
I think that as they tried to understand their grief over what their father did, they didn’t have a way to understand it. So they said, “Well, he was left alone with all these children and was overwhelmed.”
In a way, they blamed themselves. They said, “It’s our fault, because we were all these kids, and he didn’t know what to do with us.” Or, “It was our mother’s fault, because she died,” instead of being like, “It just happens. It just happens sometimes, and it’s no one’s fault. There’s no one to blame.”
So in many ways, it helped me release the blame that I wasn’t good enough, or grateful enough, or religious enough, and as I released my own sense of self-blame, I wanted to take it away for them, too.
Q: What’s the message for the church in this book? At one point, you write that after you were raped while in seminary, you tried to talk about it with various pastors, some of whom were far from understanding and supportive. If I remember right, one kept looking over your head to watch a baseball game on television.
That is right.
I think the majority of the clergy were broken, too, and they didn’t have really good theological answers for themselves, so they gave the ones they’d heard, they gave the ones they gave themselves, and they were horrible!
For me, it was re-traumatizing. I tell people if I hadn’t been a minister, I would have left the church. I completely understand why people leave the church. If I hadn’t been a student and contracted for work in a church somewhere, I probably would have left.
For me, the message for the church is, “Don’t be the church that does that to people!” As clergy, work on your own mental health so you don’t hurt other people. And be able to recognize [mental illness] and refer people to specialists when they need it.
Also, teach them theology, and about warmth and welcome, and that you don’t have to do 20 million things to be good Christians, that God doesn’t need that.
Hopefully, with the theology they can handle change and suffering, as well as joy. Teach those. Don’t teach the condemning ones, the ones where something is wrong with you if you don’t pray right. Or if your life isn’t perfect, or if you’re poor or sad, it’s because God is punishing you. Don’t teach those.
Q: Finally, how are you doing now? How are things going?
I’m living the dream, right? I’m getting to write a book I’ve been working on for a very long time, and share it with others. The responses I get are astounding to me. They blow me away -- that sharing my story touches other people and helps them feel freer. That’s what I’m called to do.
I’ve also learned how to take my condition seriously without it owning me. I do things every day -- whether it’s fitness or seeing my therapist or journaling or whatever it is -- to be sure that I’m OK.
And I am OK. But I still have to work at it. The funny thing, of course, is that the things I do are probably the things everybody should do: eat right, exercise, check in with the doctor, right?